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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Says Russia Not a Threat to Europe

ReutersPresident Vladimir Putin meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the site of the G8 summit Wednesday.
U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday discounted Vladimir Putin's threat to retarget missiles at Europe, saying, "Russia is not going to attack Europe."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, said he expected to have a frank conversation with Putin about Russia's relations with Europe and the United States.

The two leaders spoke just hours before meeting with Putin at an informal dinner late Wednesday at the start of the Group of Eight summit in Heiligendamm, Germany.

Putin made no public comments going into the summit. But Igor Shuvalov, his G8 sherpa, said the president was looking forward to meeting with the other leaders.

Bush, in an interview with reporters, said no U.S. military response was required after Putin warned that Russia would take steps in response to plans to deploy a U.S. missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Russia is not an enemy," Bush said, sitting in a sun-drenched garden in the resort town hosting the G8 summit. "There needs to be no military response because we're not at war with Russia. Russia is not a threat."

On the missile defense plans, Bush cited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration that it was "too late" to stop Iran's nuclear program as justification for basing a shield in Europe. "Therefore, let's build a missile defense system," Bush said, adding that it was time to return to the United Nations Security Council to tighten pressure on Iran to give up its suspected weapons program.

Putin had rattled nerves in Europe with his weekend declaration that he might retarget missiles at Europe.

But "I don't think Vladimir Putin intends to attack Europe," Bush said.

Bush insisted that Russia had no reason to worry about a missile shield. He said Moscow had an arsenal of nuclear rockets "that could overwhelm any defense system." Instead, Bush reiterated that an anti-missile system would be intended to protect against rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. president has angered Putin in the past by criticizing Russia's spotty progress on democratic reform and human rights -- a theme Bush expressed in a speech in Prague on Tuesday.

Still, Bush said Russia had "advanced a long way from the old Soviet era."

Asked whether Putin was trying to play to public opinion at home with his tough talk, Bush said he could not be sure, but added: "When public opinion influences leadership, it indicates there is an involvement of the people."

Asked whether he anticipated a tense encounter with Putin at the dinner late Wednesday, Bush replied: "Could be. I don't think so. ... I'll work to see that it's not a tense meeting."

In London, Blair said he expected to have a frank discussion with Putin about the U.S. missile shield and Putin's dismissal of British attempts to extradite murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi as stupid. "I've always had good relations with President Putin. We want good relations with Russia, but that can only be done on the basis that there are certain shared principles and shared values," Blair said in the House of Commons shortly before leaving for Germany.

"And the consequences if there aren't is not that -- there is no point in making hollow threats against Russia -- the consequence is that people in Europe will want to minimize the business they do if that happens."

In an interview broadcast earlier Wednesday, Blair said the missile plan "has always been about the danger of rogue states." "The truth of the matter is that, for all sorts of reasons, it is not something that is really about Russia at all and yet suddenly it is put up by Russia in this way, in quite a confrontational way," he told the BBC.

"Now I think the sensible thing, and this is what I'll do certainly when I meet President Putin, is just to have a frank conversation about the state of the relationship between not simply Britain but Europe and Russia."

British authorities are seeking to try Lugovoi in the poisoning death last year of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London. On Sunday, Putin reiterated that the Constitution forbids extradition, and he criticized British officials of ignoring that. "From whatever side you look at this problem, there's only stupidity," Putin said.

Blair said he hoped to resolve the issue. "We know what issues the Russians have there, but we can't have someone murdered on British soil in that way and nothing happen, so it is a discussion we will have to have," Blair said.

Despite tensions with Russia, Blair said he did not believe a second Cold War was brewing. "I don't think that the danger is that you get a fresh Cold War, but I think, if Russia wants the right relationship with Europe, with America and so on, then it's got to be on the basis of certain shared values and principles," he said.

The Russian Orthoox Church weighed in Wednesday on the missile shield, urging world religious leaders to help avert a new arms race that would cast "a terrible shadow on the whole planet."

Putin is expected to meet with Blair and Bush on Thursday and Friday. His first one-on-one talks were to be with German Chancellor Angela Merkel late Wednesday, said Shuvalov, Putin's aide.

He said the president would "play the role of an old-timer" at the summit, his eighth and last, Itar-Tass reported. "This will be a very interesting format for him. In general, this year's deliberations will be very interesting," he said.

Shuvalov said Putin "will be among his colleagues there, but he is more proficient and deeper versed in some problems due to his lengthy presidential experience and, therefore, he will be able to get to the bottom of many problems better than some people sitting at the same summit table with him," Itar-Tass reported.

AP, MT